Literacy for a new medium: Word processing skills in EST

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Sysmn. Vol. 18. No. 3. pp. 335-342. 1990 Printed in Great Britain 0346-251X/90 $3.00 + 0.00 Pergamon Press plc LITERACY FOR A NEW MEDIUM: WORD PROCESSING SKILLS IN EST KEN HYLAND Department of Language and Communication Studies, PNG University of Technology, Papua New Guinea While word processing skills are becoming increasingly important in tertiary courses in EST, there has been little discussion of what these skills are or how they might best be taught. This paper argues that word processing is a new creative environment which demands a radically different approach to writing. Originating, revising and formatting are important new literacy skills which students need to make effective use of the medium. The importance of developing these new skills is emphasized and some pedagogical implications of the relationship between thought and writing are discussed. INTRODUCTION Knowledge of word processing, like a good telephone manner, is rapidly becoming a professional survival skill. As technologists and engineers are increasingly called upon to produce their own finished documents, word processing is developing as a central aspect of technical writing courses. Learning how to use a word processor is especially useful for advanced students of English for Science and Technology. Not only because it will help them in their studies and careers, but because it calls upon them to practice and develop essential new language skills. Those of us introducing word processing have found that the task involves more than technical familiarization or developing mechanical skills. The medium is clearly not just a typewriter with some fancy additions. Despite the differences between packages, all allow documents to be created, amended and reproduced with a new ease. This influences the very process of writing itself and demands a whole new approach to creating written text. The advent of the word processor inaugurates a new literacy. On-screen editing entails entering a new creative environment with completely different ways of composing and assembling thoughts in writing. As a consequence, language teachers are presented with the challenge of helping EST students cultivate radically new ways of generating and organizing their technical documents. This paper briefly outlines some of the ways that creating word processed text seems to differ from traditional pen and paper methods. It then goes on to describe some classroom techniques which develop the relationship between thinking and writing that the new medium demands. 335 336 KENHYLAND WORD PROCESSING AND TEXT CREATION Many scientific and technical students, particularly those whose first language is not English, are anxious about writing. Often previous classroom experience has taught them to approach writing as a means of demonstrating learning rather than for communicating ideas. Perhaps their earlier language learning background may not have prepared them to regard writing as a strategy for reasoning, while others have been discouraged by their difficulties with the writing system itself. Few of them see writing as an essential technical competence or an integral part of their professional activities. It was recognized some years ago that foreign language students could benefit from the facilities provided by a word processor (e.g. Higgins, 1984; Higgins and Johns, 1984). The focus at that time however was the motivational value of instant error correction and the pedagogical advantages of text reconstruction. What was not obvious then, and what teachers are confronting now, is the crucial relationship between composition and thought. Word processors have turned out to be rather more than devices to automate paperwork, merely reducing the time and effort involved in preparing, editing and filing documents. More far reaching effects have resulted from the ease of on-screen editing they offer. This encourages users to experiment with changing or adding words, rearranging sentences and paragraphs and examining the effects of different layouts. Word processors have made text generating and editing so much more flexible, that the instant clean copy of corrected text has created a powerful motivation to write while stimulating new ways of creating text. Writing is both a process and intellectual discipline that requires and promotes unique ways of thinking. The ability to control our thoughts means seeing ideas written down before they can be shaped, developed and improved. Techniques such as brain-storming, list- making, information sorting, outlining and so on which force ideas onto paper are essential means of organizing what we are going to write in any medium. With the word processor they are the indispensable first steps to the process of text creation. The creation of formal technical documents, whether reports, articles, manuals, technical proposals or whatever, must be a sustained and multi-layered activity. It involves making connections, perceiving relationships, evaluating data and drawing conclusions. Writing with a word processor demands this continual refashioning of expression and reevaluation of material as an integral aspect of text development. In most language classrooms the skills of preplanning and redrafting are rarely demanded and few foreign students even perceive that they are relevant to them. Mapping out ideas and editing completed written work can be onerous and time-consuming tasks. Particularly in busy schedules where language classes compete for time with core technical subjects. Consequently most students generally submit their first effort as a final draft. This severely restricts the creative process and fails to correct careless organization which prevents the effective communication of ideas. Foreign language students of science and technology therefore often have to be coaxed over both an initial computerphobia and their reluctance to write. This means the teacher LITERACY FOR A NEW MEDIUM: WORD PROCESSING SKILLS IN EST 337 must focus on the tool and not the technology, providing students with the knowledge to practically use the medium to best serve their communicative goals. An intrinsic aspect of learning what the computer has to offer involves coming to terms with the radical changes it demands in the way that written work is generated and organized. Any approach to the new medium which doesnt involve a new strategy merely creates the conditions for frustration and failure. ORIGINATING SKILLS The key to developing ideas using a word processor is rapid composition. Fast is best as the medium allows the creative process to gather momentum without pausing for elegant expression, typos, spelling errors or even correct punctuation. With pen or typewriter, writers are simultaneously concerned with selecting, editing, formatting and printing words. The mechanics interfere with the creative process, deflecting concentration and slowing up thought processes. Second thoughts are discouraged by the logistics of erasers, correction fluid and legibility. By separating composition and production, word processors free thought from the labour of actually producing it. The certainty of good quality final copy allows writers to concentrate on their ideas and promotes keyboard brain-storming. Students appear to be less intimidated by this approach than one might expect. Although new users have to overcome the initial QWERTY hurdle, they soon find the keyboard a perfect learning environment because of its responsiveness. Moreover, by taking over much of the mechanical operation involved in the writing process, it frees students from their fears of bad hand writing and of committing themselves to paper. Not only does everyones work look equally presentable, but students have the security of knowing that screen text is so ephemeral that a few key strokes can extinguish it, leaving nothing to be assessed or criticized. Once some control over the keyboard has been gained, students can be given oral dictation exercises which force them to copy down what is said as fast as they can. In addition to any listening comprehension skills this develops, the method encourages proof-reading and helps students to gain the necessary confidence that everything can be put right later. Most errors are quickly located by checking through and the remainder corrected on the second reading. The next step is for students to enlarge on a structured list of ideas, using it as an outline for a memo or brief report. Time restrictions force students to concentrate on getting out ideas quickly while excluding all other considerations. The goal is to help students plan their own documents and persuade them to rapidly build texts up from outlines. The importance of an outline as a strategy for organizing ideas obviously needs a great deal of attention as it is the foundation of the document. It is not an immutable structure but may be constantly changed, further points being created as additional pegs to hang ideas on. The outline begins as single words or phrases to identify the headings and the detailed text is progressively filled out by further brainstorming and revision. 338 KENHYLAND Outlining allows the writer to block out the subject matter by providing a necessary structure while stimulating the generation of ideas. Students are forced to reread their documents and encouraged to discover further connections and new points as they draft. Only when the writer has exhausted all he or she has to say on each point, are stylistic and mechanical conventions attended to and logical considerations developed. Actual communicative aspects of the text are addressed and reader-awareness is added only as the document takes shape. Setting problems and getting students to brain-storm ideas on the keyboard has the virtue of encouraging users not only to draft documents without analyzing them, but also to go back and rework them. Because some ideas are more difficult to develop than others moreover, this also induces students to think in a non-linear way. With pen and paper students seem unable to envisage any other way of working than starting with an introduction and ending with the conclusion. Introductions are notoriously difficult to compose and writers are often deadlocked by the torture of composing the first attention grabbing sentences on paper. The freedom to just write down whatever occurs to them around a basic structure is a tremendously liberating and productive exercise for students. These methods both encourage students to use new and unfamiliar equipment while developing the strategies and procedures which will allow them to make best use of it. For only when the ideas are on the screen can revisions begin and students employ the real power of a word processor. REVISION SKILLS Revision involves feeding the basic plan back to the mind for reworking. Obviously this is the major advantage of the word processor for writers. It is facilitated by simply positioning the cursor and deleting, replacing, copying or moving words or blocks of text instantaneously. Unlike writing in other media, where it is often seen as a separate activity performed on completed drafts, revision using a word processor is both an essential and recursive activity. It is performed at any point in the writing process on any text segment. It refers not only to detecting and correcting errors but to evaluating, expanding and filling out the text profile. Students seem to find that editing on-screen text can be done with an objectivity which is hard to achieve when working on their own handwriting. Because changes are made electronically with existing text being completely replaced, the confusions of mechanical alterations are avoided and the tedium of retyping the entire document eliminated. With pen and paper most students seldom revise their written work and even when they do, redrafting is usually confined to correcting spelling and punctuation. The brain-storming method of creating text however, demands that editing is taken seriously as an integral part of document creation, both to develop ideas further and improve phrasing. Initial exercises are usually necessary to acquaint new users with such editing features as text location, deletion and electronic cut and paste. Exercises may include reordering LITERACY FOR A NEW .MEDIUM: WORD PROCESSING SKILLS IN EST 339 jumbled sentences, finishing incomplete documents, editing texts according to proof-readers marks and linking sense frames into connected prose (e.g. Robinson, 1985). However, while prefiguring later work, these exercises are only peripheral to more crucial tasks of reworking ideas on screen, remodelling expression, and sequencing material. The continual reexamination of the embryo text by the writer generates an awareness of further possibilities of exploitation and development. Reworking an existing text environment fosters an awareness that something is discrepant or incomplete or is somehow related to another idea or text segment. The actual intellectual process is unclear but is quite distinct from generation of initial text in its demands and development (Bartlett, 1982). Reviewing seems to bring contact between existing text on the screen and a body of relevant knowledge at some level of consciousness from which related ideas can be constructed or represented. The manipulation of sentences and paragraphs on a screen during editing is clearly a powerful incentive to perceive new connections between ideas. Edward de Bono argues that this text rearrangement capacity makes word processors into thought processors which can be used to solve problems (Robinson, 1985). He too suggests that users key in random thoughts and then expand this into continuous prose if necessary. Providing students with problems and letting them work at them in this way is a great stimulus to productivity in generating ideas. Checking a text for readability is another major reason for redrafting and teachers can provide valuable assistance in nurturing these skills. Readability obviously plays a crucial role in technical documents, particularly if they are directed at a non-technical audience. The non-specialist language teacher must therefore use his or her lack of subject expertize as a resource to judge the communicative effectiveness of technical work. Long, complex sentences, a profusion of polysyllabic words, overuse of unfamiliar specialized terms or acronyms, vagueness and redundancies are the curse of much scientific and technical writing. Their elimination is one goal of revision. One approach to this is for students to attack poorly written documents using on-screen editing techniques. Various letters, reports or proposals packed with jargon, vague language, redundancies, meaningless courtesies and logical logjams can be put on disk for student redrafting. The goal is for students to become aware of the importance of directness and clarity to effective communication. Almost all word processors offer features which can assist clear writing while familiarizing students with specific software attributes. The word count facility, for example, can be used on a few sample sentences to encourage more succinct expression and stimulate sentence length comparison with immediate revisions. A thesaurus is a useful tool for proceeding through a document and replacing vague or jargon words with more specific terms. Search and replace utilities can be used to find common jargon words, file style expressions and obsolete phrases then to substitute more natural and understandable alternatives. Additionally, while the spell checker may appear to deter thorough error checking, it is a useful means of encouraging proof-reading for sense, as the user can rely on most spelling errors being located automatically. 340 KEN HYLAND While not yet part of most word processing packages, there are also various programmes available which provide feature analysis routines. Such free Shareware programmes as that based on Gunnings Fog Index or the Word Frequency indicator provide useful stylistic evaluations of sentence length, word frequency, repetition and word length. This kind of feedback is useful in helping students become aware of readability in their compositions and accomplish better drafts. A further significant, and demanding, editing skill involves eliminating superfluity. Writers require a concise style to ensure their message gets attention and allow readers to quickly find the information they are looking for. Unfortunately however, technical material is frequently verbose and inaccessible. It is often littered with redundancies and awkward phrasing which expand their size and obscure their meaning. Students can be forced into economical expression. By placing word limits on documents they believe they have completed, students have to locate and remove all redundancies. These include words which express the same idea, state the obvious, explain what the reader already knows, or otherwise add nothing to the understanding of the subject. A final revision task is to ensure that the document is fashioned in terms of logical sequence. By this stage the writer will have developed an overall purpose or design and will be able to judge whether the text structure meets the communicative requirements of this purpose. Restructuring the text to logically juxtapose ideas and coherently order arguments also entails including the signals which link the progress of the reasoning. Fashioning the text in this way motivates a reflective appraisal of the text and a critical evaluation of its communicative effectiveness. As EST students become more familiar with the word processor and the particular demands it makes on their approach to technical writing, effective texts become easier and easier to produce. Problems are self-corrected and increasingly become less frequent while greater attention can be paid to more subtle points of style and expression. Both the documents and the skill in producing them gradually improve as students develop their new literacy skills. Reviewing word processed text is clearly more than just editing mistakes or tidying up a completed piece of work. It is crucial to creating a document and indistinguishable from the act of writing itself. Composing on a word processor involves tentative and untidy steps at first, followed by repeated reworking and expansion of what is on the screen. Although often neglected in other media, technical writing on a word processor demands that the author continually returns to the ideas already keyed in, assembling and expanding them while monitoring the unfolding development of coherent thought. FORMATTING SKILLS While the word processor takes over many of the mechanical operations of the writing process by separating composing and production skills, presentation quality is ultimately the writers responsibility. The final aspect of the new literacy is therefore the ability to produce an attractive document. LITERACY FOR A NEW MEDIUM: WORD PROCESSING SKILLS IN EST 341 The look of a report or any other technical document is more important than ever before. The ease with which manuscripts can be formatted and reshaped has increased the standards by which material is judged. Readers are more sophisticated now and are aware that the document in their hands is the outcome of a process which permits a vast number of formatting options to enhance readability. They therefore expect greater professionalism in presentation. Clear, persuasive prose remains the objective, but now good presentation becomes an essential means in achieving this. Communicative effectiveness entails more than clear expression and logical arguments. Modern readers are busy people with little time to read all the documents that come their way. They therefore expect technical writers to cooperate by using a range of formatting strategies to help them through documents quickly. The use of various print enhancements to signal document structure or to get salient points over without the need for detailed reading are essential aspects of the new literacy skills. Margin placement, indentation, and the use of white space, section headings and so on can greatly assist readability and therefore reader motivation. So, to command attention and motivate busy readers, writers have to produce documents that are eye-catching and easy to read. Technology students often have to be convinced of this by examining the effects of various formatting changes on document readability. Examples of badly presented technical texts are easy enough to find and students enjoy the opportunity to reformat them to their own ideas of good presentation style. The results of these formatting alterations are printed out and different final versions of the same document compared by the group. Students can collaborate in determining what is most effective or can compete against each other to rapidly unearth information from differently presented document drafts. What is important however is that students come to identify, and then to employ, these means of getting attention for their documents. In addition, they must also learn to be consistent in their use of such features. The novelty of these formatting tricks provides a strong incentive for overkill and demands a logic and a strategy for document design that is an integral part of the new literacy. Part of this document design strategy therefore involves customizing formats by tailoring them to the needs of particular readers. This helps students define their writing objectives more clearly and creates reader-awareness by further sensitizing students to the communicative aspects of document creation. Frequently students have little idea of what readers background understandings and requirements might be, nor that documents can be fashioned for a particular readership by presenting relevant aspects more clearly. Opportunities for discussing such issues can be created by simulation exercises where files have to be merged or the same information sent to readers with different purposes or varying technical expertize. By enhancing appearance, clarifying document structure and customizing information, text formatting skills can greatly enhance the chances of the writer communicating a message. 342 KEN HYLAND CONCLUSIONS Many of the contributions to the growing literature on computer assisted language learning (CALL) tend towards a rather mechanistic behaviourism. Users are set tasks and are rewarded by the computer if successful. The word processor however requires that computers are used in a genuinely communicative way, as a language tool rather than a system of programmed instruction. Developing an awareness of what word processing has to offer the engineer or technologist clearly means developing new capacities and skills among users. The stunning ease with which documents can be created, amended and printed has literally revolutionized the way we think and write and requires what amounts to new literacy skills. By entering the environment of the new medium fresh possibilities for generating and expressing ideas are created. Word processors provide new opportunities by extending the users perceptions and potential for expression. Teaching what are fundamentally new literacy and communication skills is the means to ensure that these opportunities are grasped. REFERENCES BARTLETT, E. (1982) Learning to revise: some component processes. In Nystrand, M. (ed.), What Writers Know: The Language, Process and Structure of Written Discourse. New York: Academic Press. HIGGINS, J. (1984) The computer and text. Mediu in Educufion and Development 17, 173-176. HIGGINS, J. and JOHNS, T. (1984) Computers in Language Learning. London: Collins. KING, P. (1984) Mind to Disk to Paper. New York: Franklin Watts. MOORE, P. (1986) Using Computers in English. London: Methuen. ROBINSON, B. (1985) Mcrocompufers and the Longuage Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.